By James Turner
El Cid was released in 1961 at the absolute zenith of the historical epics’ reign in Hollywood. Coming hot on the heels of Spartacus’ runaway success, El Cid bullishly shouldered its way towards the top of this swaggering and bombastic genre of filmmaking.
In a sense, El Cid is the frothing crest of a wave that is poised on the verge of an imminent rolling crash. Its successors, the opulently mismanaged Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire, with its inwardly spiraling Penrose-like navel-gazing, both failed to make back their extravagant budgets, breaking the Hollywood machine’s formally unshakable faith in the format.
At first glance, El Cid contains all that is required of a classic Hollywood epic and more. Banners flutter resplendently redolent on the wind, the camera sweeps across hundreds if not thousands of boisterously engaged extras and swashes are buckled with great zeal and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, our leads lock pleading eyes, brimming with barely contained emotion, as the orchestral score swells. Yet there are cracks in the edifice. Most notably, the core of the film, a character study of the titular El Cid, ably performed as it is, fits poorly within the framework of the surrounding epic. The tangle of tender-hearted impulses, stringent self-denial and scornful righteousness rattle around the film with a hollow ring, never quite meshing into an overall theme or thesis.
The early development of El Cid was plagued by a number of logistical and legal complications. In fact, producer Samuel Bronston had to temporarily shelve the project in favor of the biblical epic King of Kings which was considerably easier to finance, given MGM Studios’ desire to replicate the success they had earlier found with Ben-Hur. Following the success of El Cid, Samuel repeated the formula with the imperial era war movie, 55 Days at Peking, set during the Boxer Rebellion. Unfortunately, his career hit a reef with the financial failure of The Fall of the Roman Empire. The resultant legal difficulties that arose from the bankruptcy of his company carved Samuel Bronston out a place in legal history when the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction for perjury, ruling that literally truthful answers cannot be prosecuted as perjury, no matter how misleading or evasive they are.
The film, which was shot in a studio in Spain, with extensive location shoots, was directed by Anthony Mann. Mann, who had been raised a member of the neo-classical and semi-mystic Theosophical Society, had directed a raft of mid-budget war movies, historical features and above all else Westerns. Mann was also the initial director of Spartacus before he was replaced with Stanley Kubrick in the opening weeks of filming. El Cid then was Mann’s chance to prove that he could direct a film on the lavish scale of a Hollywood Epic and do so well.
The writing for the film was something of a mess and unfortunately shows in the occasional rough edges of the final product. The initial screenplay was provided by Fredrick M. Frank who had previously provided the bombast-filled scripts for Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments. This script was then rewritten by co-writer Philip Yordan, Mann and the lead actor Charlton Heston who had significant reservations about the quality of the script. The script was then given a further overhaul after the film’s leading lady, the resolutely majestic Sophia Loren, expressed dissatisfaction with her role, leading to the hiring of Ben Barzman, a Canadian writer who had been blacklisted from Hollywood due to his wife’s membership of the American Communist Party.
The History behind the movie
In a way, El Cid considerably benefits from its status as an adaptation of a life that is almost as much myth and legend as it is historical fact. For much of the 11th century, the Iberian Peninsula was divided between a chain of volatile Christian kingdoms in the north and the Muslim-led principalities, or taifas, that emerged from the disintegration of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba. Of course, despite this binary in religious affiliation, cultural and political divisions were permeable. The inhabitants of the peninsula were just as likely to wage war on their immediate neighbors and co-religionists as they were on the infidel. The fractured and fluidic structure of these polities led to a tangle of territorial claims, familial connections and commercial interests that meant political affiliation was the result of a confluence of factors rather than simply a matter of religious or ethnic background.
Born sometime in the early 1040s, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, later known by the honorific, ‘El Cid’, was a member of a minor aristocratic family who served as functionaries and officials within the court of Ferdinand the Great, the self-proclaimed Emperor of Spain, and his successor, King Sancho II. Sancho, also known as Sancho the Strong, had inherited the throne of Castile after the death of his father in 1065. The remainder of Ferdinand’s large northern hegemony was divided between his younger sons, Alfonso and García who inherited the kingdoms of León and Galician respectively. Rodrigo began his military career in the years immediately prior to this tripartite division and the internecine warfare that was to follow. It appears that he participated in Ferdinand’s subjugation of the Taifa of Zaragoza in 1057. In an interesting example of the supremacy of personal affiliation and political interests over religious and cultural binaries during this period, Rodrigo is next recorded as fighting in 1063 under the command of the defeated Emir of Zaragoza as part of Ferdinand’s war against his half-brother, Ramiro of Aragon.
In 1068, Sancho bested an alliance formed by his cousins, King Sancho of Aragon and King Sancho IV of Navarre. Having proven himself to be the definitive Sancho, he entered into an alliance with Alfonso in 1071, driving out their younger brother García who took refuge with the Emir of Seville, and dividing Galicia between themselves. The following year, he turned against Alfonso, decisively defeating him at the Battle of Golpejera. This victory is traditionally attributed to the leadership of Rodrigo who rallied the army after a day of bloody but indecisive fighting and seized victory by leading a bold and unexpected charge the following morning. Of course, it is possible that Rodrigo’s role in the battle and status as Sancho’s premier military commander may have been retroactively exaggerated in retellings of his life, armed with the foreknowledge of his future prominence. Whatever the truth of Rodrigo’s status within Sancho’s court, it was to prove transitory for the king was assassinated later that year. García once again got the short end of the stick when he was imprisoned by Alfonso who took all three kingdoms for himself. The new king naturally had followers of his own who he was eager to reward and was not particularly well disposed to those who had helped his brother betray and exile him, leading to an erosion of Rodrigo’s position.
A war between the Taifa’s of Seville and Granada exacerbated existing rivalries between different factions and family groups within Castile who were to some extent associated or allied with either side. The result was the battle of Cabra in which the Emir of Seville supported by Rodrigo and his followers defeated the Grenadians, capturing their ally Count García Ordóñez. Unfortunately for Rodrigo, Ordóñez was one of King Alfonso’s favorites and the affair ended with Rodrigo’s exile from Castile and León. He then entered into the service of the new emir of Zaragoza and famed mathematician, al-Mu’taman Billah. During this period of exile, he earnt the honorific ‘El Cid’, successfully defending the principality against both his new lord’s brother, al-Mundhir, and the king of Aragon. At the same time, the frayed and harried political equilibrium of the Iberian Peninsula was being thrown into disarray by the hegemonic designs of the Moroccan-based Almoravid dynasties on the region.
The Almoravid ruler, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, successfully mobilized Islamic identity to rally many of the taifa’s against the Christian kingdoms which had for two generations extorted and threatened them, scoring a dramatic victory against Alfonso and his relatives at the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086. However, the emirs of Muslim Spain claimed descent from the Umayyad Caliphs and one of the Prophet Muhammad’s closest companions. As such, some of them viewed the ethnically and culturally distinct Almoravids as interlopers and every bit as much of a threat as the Christians. Rodrigo was reconciled with King Alfonso but rather than re-enter direct royal service began to carve out a powerbase of his own. At the head of an army composed of his mingled Christian and Muslim followers, he defeated Count Ramon Berenguer II of Barcelona in 1090 before besieging the city of Valencia from the Almoravid allies who had seized power there. Finally capturing the city in 1094, he then ruled Valencia and its surrounding environs as a more or less independent principality for the next five years until his death, after which the Almoravids would recapture the city.
Adapting history for the movie
The film compresses and twists this story in order to portray the titular character in a more unambiguously heroic, perhaps even saintly, light. The film adroitly sets the stakes in its opening scenes by placing Yusuf ibn Tashfin’s, referred to as Ben Yusuf, aggressive interventionism far earlier in Rodrigo’s career than was the case historically. He likewise earns his honorific, establishing an atypical nobility and magnanimity, in the opening stages of the film. After a spell wryly ruminating on the nature of fate and happenstance in the ruins of a Church, it is revealed that a passing Rodrigo has already captured the perpetrators, a contingent of Arab aristocrats. Rather than leave his prisoners to the mercies of the mob or hand them over to his liege for execution, Rodrigo, always looking to further the cause of peace, lets them go on the condition that they swear to never fight or raid against the King of Castile. It is his willingness to take his captives at their word, recognizing and placing trust in their own sense of virtue and nobility, as much as it is his leniency that wins him his name and the admiration of the Emir of Zaragoza.
Rodrigo’s actions and lack of commitment to religious hatred or the perpetuation of the cycle of violence raise questions about his loyalty within King Ferdinand’s court. Fortunately for Rodrigo and the audience alike, this issue is settled in a pair of duels, the second of which, a trial by combat against the champion of Aragon is lavishly staged and executed with an admirable level of breathless grit. So far, this is all great and the film overall has a very strong opening act. Things start to come off the tracks a little following the death of King Ferdinand and Rodrigo’s immersion in the resultant political intrigue and internecine plotting between his sons, Sancho and Alfonso. García is excised altogether, presumably for the sake of simplicity, while the film places an emphasis on the close, perhaps shading into the Lannisterian, relationship between Alfonso and their sister Urraca.
Alfonso presses Sancho to partition their father’s kingdom. When Sancho is less than receptive to this idea, Alfonso unveils his plan B: murder. A knife fight breaks out in which Sancho overpowers his younger brother. Prevented from killing him by Urraca’s intervention, Sancho orders Alfonso’s incarceration. Rodrigo then rescues Alfonso from captivity, facing down a platoon of guards all by himself in the process. He then refuses to provide Alfonso with further aid after he and Urraca are besieged by Sancho, claiming that he is sworn to serve both brothers equally. Horrified, El Cid then witnesses Sancho’s murder from the castle walls and manages to slay the assassin as he seeks refuge within the fortress before comforting the dying king. During Alfonso’s coronation, Rodrigo derails events by accusing him of fratricide and demands that Alfonso swear on the Bible that he had nothing to do with his brother’s death before the amassed royal court. Predictably this challenge earns the new king’s ire who exiles him shortly afterwards.
Heston’s stern proselytizing and glimpses of anguished indecision informs the audience that Rodrigo’s tangled actions are the result of an unyielding commitment to righteousness and the presence of an absolute moral code. To less generous viewers or those put off by the uncompromising zealotry with which the character mingles his self-belief and religious convictions, it can seem like Rodrigo’s erratic interventions are the result of a committed contrarian rather than a meddlesome do-gooder. Rodrigo is far from naïve; he makes it absolutely clear that he is aware of the potential horror of civil war and his inability to meaningfully serve both brothers, but he plows on anyway compounding the situation further. The movie’s attempt to display its lead’s unimpeachable moral status and commitment to ethics ultimately undermine and damage his heroic credentials. While it can always be argued that this was intentional, the film fails to linger on or interrogate the point since he is almost immediately joined in exile by a literal army of supporters and admirers.
A closely related issue, also connected to the characterization of Rodrigo, is the film’s framing of his admirable commitment to religious tolerance and cultural inclusivity. When Ben Yusuf and the Almoravids begin their invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in earnest, Alfonso recalls El Cid from exile but then balks at the prospect of accepting help from Rodrigo’s Muslim allies. He’s then quite rightly punished for his intolerance with a devastating off-screen defeat. However, throughout the final act, which covers El Cid’s capture and then defense of the city of Valencia, it is made clear that the coalition of Christian and Muslims assembled to defend against the Almoravids is dependent entirely upon his leadership. When he is wounded in battle, the army retreats in despair, panicking and wailing at the window of his sick room before he drags himself out to reassure them.
His army of extras is committed to the dreamer but not the dream. Clearly, it’s important for the main character to perform heroic, perhaps inimitable deeds, but Rodrigo somewhat paradoxically seems as convinced as everyone else of the uniqueness of his virtues. The final confrontation and the issues at stake ring slightly hollow when it becomes clear that neither El Cid nor the movie have a vision outside the bounds of his personal leadership. In an odd way it reflects the actual history of highly personal and plastic political allegiances, while diminishing the larger cultural context that enabled this system. Rodrigo’s former enemy and romantic rival, the brilliantly slimy García Ordóñez played by Raf Vallone, ends up bravely dying for the cause out of personal admiration for Rodrigo and his earlier clemency. He does not, however, seems to ever ponder the idea that murder and blackmail are poor foundations for a marriage.
This somewhat muddled and loose messaging is further undermined by the, at the time, common practice of casting European actors as Arab and Berber characters. In addition to the deplorable and dubious makeup employed, the actors cast in these roles adopt overexaggerated mannerisms to signify their characters’ status as a distinct other. No doubt actual filmmakers have some mechanism for discussing the thankfully abandoned filmmaking techniques of yore, but I’ll have to settle by saying its overall effect is distracting and distasteful.
Heston and Loren
I would of course be far too afraid to level even this mild degree of criticism against the film were Charlton Heston still alive today. He delivers a powerful, larger-than-life performance as the legendary El Cid, providing the necessary gravitas while effectively communicating the character’s anguish and much-needed awareness as he follows, what the film presents as, the unerringly arrow-straight path of his conscious. It is no wonder that Bronston was so eager to have Heston play the similarly stern and ruggedly individualistic leading man in his next film, 55 Days at Peking.
The occasional shakiness of the movie’s grand intrigue is anchored by the romance between Rodrigo and his true love, Jimena, played by the ever-striking Sophia Loren. The course of true love seldom runs smoothly and the couple are initially forced apart on the eve of their wedding when Rodrigo’s attempts to avert a duel between their respective fathers, end with him killing Jimena’s father himself. Heston and Loren smolder on screen together, a match in layered intensity and nuance. Loren’s Jimena, closely mirrors her masochistically virtuous love interest and for much of the movie she is willing to endure a state of misery in order to inflict the like upon her father’s killer, regardless of her continued romantic feelings for him. Another stand-out performance is that of Scottish actor, John Fraser, whose portrayal of Alfonso, artfully blends ruthless ambition and churlish fragility.
The abiding draw of the historical Epic during this period was the scope and depth of its spectacle and in this regard, El Cid succeeds convincingly. While for the most part being horribly anarchistic, the costuming for the film is bright, bold and striking. The Castilian court is adorned with colorfully garbed courtiers and crisp banners decoronated with swatches of gold brocade. There’s one particularly memorable scene in which the King of Aragon and his retinue canter into the throne room on horseback to opportunistically deliver his challenge to decide ownership of the city Calahorra through trial by combat in which king and horse are bedecked in magnificent heraldry, the likes of which was never seen in the eleventh century.
The final battle involved the participation of over 1,700 soldiers loaned to the production by the Spanish army with thousands of costumes, weapons and pieces of armour produced for the movie in Toldeo, one of the great medieval centers of metallurgy and weapon manufacture. When arrayed out on location before the still extant medieval walls of Valencia and imbued with chaotic and frantic energy by the direction, El Cid can compete shot for shot with any epic ever made in terms of sheer scope and splendor. The notable exception to this is Ben Yusuf’s Almoravid army who are stylized entirely homogeneously and look like something sprung from the fevered imaginings of the neoconservative Heston of the 1990s.
All in all, El Cid is a competently made movie that ably foregrounds the great effort that went into its production while nevertheless showing a few cracks here and there. The second act is somewhat lacking, and the film is so determined to claim its place as a historical epic, its biographical and character study elements fall short of providing much beyond of the veneer of virtue necessary to justify the bluster and pomposity of this cinematic vision. In a way, the film’s ending in which a splendidly adorned but very much dead Rodrigo pounds across the medieval scenery on a magnificent white charger with an army of howling extras, is an apt analogy. To end there though would be to ignore the quieter moments scattered throughout the film in which it reaches the truly sublime, such as Rodrigo and Jimena’s first night together in shared exile. Or the scene in which the parched El Cid, wandering through the desert, shares water with a lepper he encounters, a man who is able to identify and name him through this act of kindness alone. It is these scenes that linger in the mind long after the trumpets and thunderous roar of the crowd have faded.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.